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https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10202/anni-donaldson-it-time-scotland-paid-new-piper

Our Celtic Connections columnist, Anni Donaldson, explores the politics of gender in Scottish traditional music

WITH the chants of a women’s anti-Trump demonstration booming outside Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, it was an auspicious moment to start a new conversation about gender and Scottish traditional music. 

Judging by the audience’s response to the lively discussion during the ‘Exploring Gender and Music’ event on the second afternoon of Celtic Connections 2017, this apparently last minute addition to the festival programme billed this year as “a celebration of inspiring women artists” is long overdue.

The craic, as they say in ceilidh circles, was mighty. An impressive panel of female doyennes of the traditional music scene got down to it. Kicking off the discussion, Rachel Newton (main picture), harpist and vocalist in The Shee who organised the event, talked about the moment she became aware that almost all of the bands nominated for the 2016 Scots Trad music awards were male and there were only three women out of 39 band members in the whole category.

Newton hesitated before going public on Facebook but felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

Newton hesitated before going public on Facebook but felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

Newton found there was a growing band of women Trad musicians and artists who felt the same. They were staring into the cavernous depths of a newly discovered Scottish gender gap. The artistic gap may now be added to all the other fissures in Scottish society which add up to gender inequality (pay, care, income, representation, power, freedom).

The musicians, journalists, agents and publicists on the panel and in the audience were full of examples: of festival and gig programmers not booking enough women artists, of women being paid less than men.

Agent Lisa Wyttock talked about festival organisers rarely booking more than one so-called ‘girl band’ and how women simply do not headline Trad Scottish festivals. Journalist Sue Wilson had also observed a level of discrimination against women artists by festival programmers which just does not exist for all-male bands: “Turn it around the other way and that type of discrimination just does not apply.”

Expectations also differ. Whereas string-driven, or air blown, seriously fast and furious sets are what is expected from guys, women are more often favoured for their vocals over their instrumental skills.

Expectations also differ. Whereas string-driven, or air blown, seriously fast and furious sets are what is expected from guys, women are more often favoured for their vocals over their instrumental skills.

Guitarist and singer Jenn Butterworth was less than flattered by being told that her all-woman band had “balls” and “played like men”. According to Jenny Hill, double bass player, publicists and record labels often expect women to dress prettily and be ultra-feminine.

Hill and Butterworth were involved in a unique collaboration of women trad musicians from across the UK. The exquisite and critically acclaimed Songs of Separation (pictured) successfully premiered at last year’s Celtic Connections and was unusual not least for the fact that the sight of 10 extraordinarily gifted women composers, musicians and singers solely occupying a Scottish stage was in itself highly unusual.

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Funding is also an issue. Hill was unequivocal: “There’s a need for some positive discrimination for women to equalise the grants available.” Butterworth and Sandra Kerr, both also teachers agreed that while young women outnumber young men on folk music degree courses, this is not reflected in the numbers going on to sustain professional musical careers.

Michaela Atkins, press officer at Celtic Connections, described an industry which favours “those who shout the loudest”, and there was a consensus among the women and men in the audience that overall, women’s voices, ironically, were not being heard in the folk scene, that this conversation was long overdue and in need of oxygen and, above all, data.

To the sounds of the throng of protest still ringing from outside, the discussion ended with email addresses being shared, calls for more discussion, research and mutual support and in a firm resolve that women artists needed a fairer shout.

Guitarist and singer Jen Butterworth was less than flattered by being told that her all-woman band had “balls” and “played like men”.

Traditional music is, by its nature, well, traditional. Scots and Gaelic culture reflect the totems of Scottish identity which have always been essentially male with some outdated attitudes to women.

Our national story is a graphic boy’s own comic with its heroes and villains, emigrants, martyrs and the odd fruitcake queen or dead lover. It tells of blokes bonding in battles fought in factory, field or far away, of disasters and drams, triumphs over adversity, poverty, the English, other Scottish guys, the ruling classes, etc. Even with the soundtrack down low it is easy to detect whose voices are the loudest.

The folk singers and working class troubadors of the 1960s and 1970s Scottish folk revival did a fine thing – truly. However, that Sandy Bells culture of late night, drunken music sessions was full of hairy fellows with no visible means of support, who got the breaks and went on to successful professional careers as performers and national treasures – wizards of box and bow. There are not so many women among their number.

There’s an old joke that neatly sums up the gender politics of those times – Q: What do you call a folk musician without a girl friend? A: Homeless.

Q: What do you call a folk musician without a girl friend? A: Homeless.

Is it time for Scotland’s women musicians to wrench the trad scene away from its 1970s attitudes? Let’s call time on that old story: 21st century Scotland needs to pay a new piper, call a different tune.

Celtic Connections continues until 5 February 2017.

Picture courtesy of Celtic Connections

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